LONDON -- Pope Francis gave no indication in a lengthy interview published Thursday of a change in doctrine on hot-button issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, observers said. But he made clear his intent to steer the Roman Catholic Church away from its recent "culture wars."
“He said the same things that the church has always said. But he put his accent on mercy,” said Marco Tosatti, a veteran Vatican watcher with Italy’s La Stampa newspaper. “It’s certainly different from Benedict and John Paul II.... He prefers to say, well, we must concentrate more on mercy and leniency than on the legalistic way of putting things.”
Francis told La Civilta Cattolica, an Italian Jesuit magazine, that the church would “fall like a house of cards” if it focuses only on enforcing restrictive rules on abortion, gays and contraception, instead of throwing open its doors and making the church more compassionate.
"We have to find a new balance," he said.
Tosatti said the shift in tone alarms conservative clerics and laypeople who fear that Catholic teachings – and the church’s mission – are being diluted.
“The conservatives in every country will certainly say, ‘Listen, we are now facing in the whole Western world a social attack on values. And that’s not a problem of mercy,’” Tosatti said.
The interview with the pope, which was also published in English by U.S. Jesuit magazine America, underscored the sea change that Francis has brought to the papacy in just six months.
The first pope from Latin America has galvanized millions of followers with his emphasis on personal humility and on reaching out to the marginalized with love, transforming the pontificate, which had come to seem aloof and alien to many Catholics and non-Catholics under his more academic predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.
Dubbed the “world’s parish priest” by the Italian media, Francis has washed the feet of juvenile delinquents, paid tribute to immigrants and kissed countless babies. He has personally telephoned ordinary people who write to him with their problems.“This is someone who is intensely pastoral, so he comes from that as his starting point,” said Matthew Bunson, editor of the Catholic Almanac. “Whereas someone else might come at it from the standpoint of pure dogmatic theology, this pope looks at it from the point of the pastoral care of souls, because he is first and foremost a pastor.”
Bunson said Francis agrees with Benedict on the need to evangelize, especially in traditionally Christian countries where many have fallen away from the Catholic Church – for example, in Europe. But rather than Benedict’s emphasis on orthodoxy, Francis sees the church as a sort of field hospital that tends to the sick and wounded, spreading the message of God’s salvation through love and mercy.
In the interview, “he’s trying to reiterate, ‘This is me, this is my style.’ Will there be criticism? Almost certainly,” Bunson said. “There will be many people who will not be satisfied with this interview. But he has a plan, and I think he’s taking us in very clear directions pastorally.”